Let’s just jump into it:
Despite the advertisements of rival firms, it is probable that every tradesman knows that nobody in business at the present time has a position equal to that of Mr. Nuth. To those outside the magic circle of business, his name is scarcely known; he does not need to advertise, he is consummate. He is superior even to modern competition, and, whatever claims they boast, his rivals know it. His terms are moderate, so much cash down when the goods are delivered, so much in blackmail afterwards. He consults your convenience. His skill may be counted upon; I have seen a shadow on a windy night move more noisily than Nuth, for Nuth is a burglar by trade. Men have been known to stay in country houses and to send a dealer afterwards to bargain for a piece of tapestry that they saw there—some article of furniture, some picture. This is bad taste: but those whose culture is more elegant invariably send Nuth a night or two after their visit. He has a way with tapestry; you would scarcely notice that the edges had been cut. And often when I see some huge, new house full of old furniture and portraits from other ages, I say to myself, “These mouldering chairs, these full-length ancestors and carved mahogany are the produce of the incomparable Nuth.”
It may be urged against my use of the word incomparable that in the burglary business the name of Slith stands paramount and alone; and of this I am not ignorant; but Slith is a classic, and lived long ago, and knew nothing at all of modern competition; besides which the surprising nature of his doom has possibly cast a glamour upon Slith that exaggerates in our eyes his undoubted merits.
It must not be thought that I am a friend of Nuth’s; on the contrary such politics as I have are on the side of Property; and he needs no words from me, for his position is almost unique in trade, being among the very few that do not need to advertise.
At the time that my story begins Nuth lived in a roomy house in Belgrave Square: in his inimitable way he had made friends with the caretaker. The place suited Nuth, and, whenever anyone came to inspect it before purchase, the caretaker used to praise the house in the words that Nuth had suggested. “If it wasn’t for the drains,” she would say, “it’s the finest house in London,” and when they pounced on this remark and asked questions about the drains, she would answer them that the drains also were good, but not so good as the house. They did not see Nuth when they went over the rooms, but Nuth was there.
Here in a neat black dress on one spring morning came an old woman whose bonnet was lined with red, asking for Mr. Nuth; and with her came her large and awkward son. Mrs. Eggins, the caretaker, glanced up the street, and then she let them in, and left them to wait in the drawing-room amongst furniture all mysterious with sheets. For a long while they waited, and then there was a smell of pipe-tobacco, and there was Nuth standing quite close to them.
“Lord,” said the old woman whose bonnet was lined with red, “you did make me start.” And then she saw by his eyes that that was not the way to speak to Mr. Nuth. And at last Nuth spoke, and very nervously the old woman explained that her son was a likely lad, and had been in business already but wanted to better himself, and she wanted Mr. Nuth to teach him a livelihood.
First of all Nuth wanted to see a business reference, and when he was shown one from a jeweller with whom he happened to be hand-in-glove the upshot of it was that he agreed to take young Tonker (for this was the surname of the likely lad) and to make him his apprentice. And the old woman whose bonnet was lined with red went back to her little cottage in the country, and every evening said to her old man, “Tonker, we must fasten the shutters of a night-time, for Tommy’s a burglar now.”
The details of the likely lad’s apprenticeship I do not propose to give; for those that are in the business know those details already, and those that are in other businesses care only for their own, while men of leisure who have no trade at all would fail to appreciate the gradual degrees by which Tommy Tonker came first to cross bare boards, covered with little obstacles in the dark, without making any sound, and then to go silently up creaky stairs, and then to open doors, and lastly to climb.
Let it suffice that the business prospered greatly, while glowing reports of Tommy Tonker’s progress were sent from time to time to the old woman whose bonnet was lined with red in the labourious handwriting of Nuth. Nuth had given up lessons in writing very early, for he seemed to have some prejudice against forgery, and therefore considered writing a waste of time. And then there came the transaction with Lord Castlenorman at his Surrey residence. Nuth selected a Saturday night, for it chanced that Saturday was observed as Sabbath in the family of Lord Castlenorman, and by eleven o’clock the whole house was quiet. Five minutes before midnight Tommy Tonker, instructed by Mr. Nuth, who waited outside, came away with one pocketful of rings and shirt-studs. It was quite a light pocketful, but the jewellers in Paris could not match it without sending specially to Africa, so that Lord Castlenorman had to borrow bone shirt-studs.
Not even rumour whispered the name of Nuth. Were I to say that this turned his head, there are those to whom the assertion would give pain, for his associates hold that his astute judgment was unaffected by circumstance. I will say, therefore, that it spurred his genius to plan what no burglar had ever planned before. It was nothing less than to burgle the house of the gnoles. And this that abstemious man unfolded to Tonker over a cup of tea. Had Tonker not been nearly insane with pride over their recent transaction, and had he not been blinded by a veneration for Nuth, he would have—but I cry over spilt milk. He expostulated respectfully; he said he would rather not go; he said it was not fair; he allowed himself to argue; and in the end, one windy October morning with a menace in the air found him and Nuth drawing near to the dreadful wood.
Nuth, by weighing little emeralds against pieces of common rock, had ascertained the probable weight of those house-ornaments that the gnoles are believed to possess in the narrow, lofty house wherein they have dwelt from of old. They decided to steal two emeralds and to carry them between them on a cloak; but if they should be too heavy one must be dropped at once. Nuth warned young Tonker against greed, and explained that the emeralds were worth less than cheese until they were safe away from the dreadful wood.
Everything had been planned, and they walked now in silence.
No track led up to the sinister gloom of the trees, either of men or cattle; not even a poacher had been there snaring elves for over a hundred years. You did not trespass twice in the dells of the gnoles. And, apart from the things that were done there, the trees themselves were a warning, and did not wear the wholesome look of those that we plant ourselves.
The nearest village was some miles away with the backs of all its houses turned to the wood, and without one window at all facing in that direction. They did not speak of it there, and elsewhere it is unheard of.
Into this wood stepped Nuth and Tommy Tonker. They had no firearms. Tonker had asked for a pistol, but Nuth replied that the sound of a shot “would bring everything down on us,” and no more was said about it.
Into the wood they went all day, deeper and deeper. They saw the skeleton of some early Georgian poacher nailed to a door in an oak tree; sometimes they saw a fairy scuttle away from them; once Tonker stepped heavily on a hard, dry stick, after which they both lay still for twenty minutes. And the sunset flared full of omens through the tree trunks, and night fell, and they came by fitful starlight, as Nuth had foreseen, to that lean, high house where the gnoles so secretly dwelt.
All was so silent by that unvalued house that the faded courage of Tonker flickered up, but to Nuth’s experienced sense it seemed too silent; and all the while there was that look in the sky that was worse than a spoken doom, so that Nuth, as is often the case when men are in doubt, had leisure to fear the worst. Nevertheless he did not abandon the business, but sent the likely lad with the instruments of his trade by means of the ladder to the old green casement. And the moment that Tonker touched the withered boards, the silence that, though ominous, was earthly, became unearthly like the touch of a ghoul. And Tonker heard his breath offending against that silence, and his heart was like mad drums in a night attack, and a string of one of his sandals went tap on a rung of a ladder, and the leaves of the forest were mute, and the breeze of the night was still; and Tonker prayed that a mouse or a mole might make any noise at all, but not a creature stirred, even Nuth was still. And then and there, while yet he was undiscovered, the likely lad made up his mind, as he should have done long before, to leave those colossal emeralds where they were and have nothing further to do with the lean, high house of the gnoles, but to quit this sinister wood in the nick of time and retire from business at once and buy a place in the country. Then he descended softly and beckoned to Nuth. But the gnoles had watched him through knavish holes that they bore in trunks of the trees, and the unearthly silence gave way, as it were with a grace, to the rapid screams of Tonker as they picked him up from behind—screams that came faster and faster until they were incoherent. And where they took him it is not good to ask, and what they did with him I shall not say.
Nuth looked on for a while from the corner of the house with a mild surprise on his face as he rubbed his chin, for the trick of the holes in the trees was new to him; then he stole nimbly away through the dreadful wood.
“And did they catch Nuth?” you ask me, gentle reader.
“Oh, no, my child” (for such a question is childish). “Nobody ever catches Nuth.”
Time for some adventure fuel.
Who is Nuth?
The least interesting possibility is that he’s just the most skilled thief around, and playing this game of surrogates against the gnoles is the only way he can earn experience points.
A second option is that he’s a faerie that gains vitality from building up the Pretence of thievery: lending it to each apprentice and taking it back as each dies.
These obvious options aside, can we find a deeper etymology for the character, much as the characters last month had strange links to their roles? What is Nuth? Could he be an embodiment of absence? Let’s play a game of bad etymology.
Imagine the word “nothing”. Here, at least, it is pronounced “nuthing”. Now, if you mistakenly believed it ended in the “-ing” suffix, and thus was a participle, that would mean that “nuth” was a verb, much like the “run” from “running” or the “swim” from “swimming”. Is he an embodiment of absence? That would explain why he is never caught: he literally can’t be caught. He isn’t there: or anywhere, or even where he is.
There is a folktale I wanted to quote here, but the version I can recall is by Neil Gaiman, so I can only allude to it. There is a creature in Books of Magic called No-one. It is called up by people accidentally giving themselves away to it. A bride says “If I cannot have my way, I will marry no-one” and so No-one comes to claim her. “No-one will steal my secret” says another, and so No-one has it.
I presume he’s a descendant of Ulysses, who calls himself “No one” when he blinds the Cyclops.
“Who hurt you?” asks Poseidon.
“No-one!” the blinded monster cries.
Is this what Nuth is? The creature that is the defined by absence? In one of my fictions, I have the absence of the road take a form and marry a redcap. Is Nuth the same sort of thing? What’s left when you take out everything else?
Dunsany came up with the term “gnole”. The hyena / humanoid blends from Dungeons and Dragons take their name from this story, but not their form. Gnoles are not described in any real detail. This is one of the stories where Syme did the illustration first, and Dunsany buttressed it with a story, so we can take some little detail from the picture. The gnoles are shaggy or spiky. They probably have digitigrade gait (walk on their toes) because they have legs that bend like those of a dog or cat. They may have hooves, depending on how you interpret the picture. Tommy Tonker is a large, strong sort of man, and the gnoles are broader than he, and equally tall.
Tommy’s name reads very oddly in English, but perhaps Dunsany was not as interested in slang as I am. A tonker is literally a penis in certain types of British slang. That, by extension, can mean a fool.
In Australia, conversely, it was slang, for a while, for a homosexual man.
In British English, a tonker is one who tonks, and that means to hit something soundly. It’s unclear if this relates to the 19th century American word “honky-tonk”.
I wonder if he’s a tinker, possibly?
Interesting that you need to lock your windows once your son is in the business